How did it happen that a local incident in Bačka Palanka turned into a case that falls within the domain of national security? Is all this just a political showdown on the eve of the elections for a new Serbian Government, or does this case show all the weaknesses of Serbia’s judiciary?
By Slobodan Georgiev (BIRN) / Photo: Vimeo
While this reporter is talking, for over two hours, with 34-year-old Dalibor Karanović, a suspended police officer of the Bačka Palanka Police Station, he feels like he is sitting with a man who is so certain of the correctness of his actions that nothing could change that.
This police officer with seven years of service, who not only has never been punished but has even been decorated a number of times, is an active instructor of aikido, jiu-jitsu and related martial arts determined to prove that a stain was cast on his reputation just because he confronted those wanting to deal drugs in Bačka Palanka.
Karanović readily answers all question about the case of Nemanja Jovanović’s (Bačka Palanka, 23 years old) apprehending, which the public learned about when TV N1 broadcast a report at the beginning of May, 2017. A seemingly ordinary story from a small town west of Novi Sad, known for former Serbian customs chief Mihalj Kertes and the Sintelon factory, caused a storm of reactions in Serbia and threw into question the functioning of not only the Serbian police but of the entire judicial system.
The public, thus, learned that police officer Karanović was suspended following a letter addressed to the Serbian Interior Ministry, that is, to Minister Nebojša Stefanović, by Nemanja’s father Zvezdan Jovanović, a.k.a. „the Viper“, a convict from the Penal Correctional Institution Zabela near Požarevac, the man who shot on March 13, 2013 the then Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić and who is serving a 40-year prison sentence.
All that „followed“ and happened in the past two weeks in public is a combination of a bad crime movie and dirty political exploitation of this case, with the tabloids’ noticeable distancing. As opposed to other „scandals“ linked with crime and corruption that are „launched“ by tabloids serving the interests of various security and criminal groups, the tabloids avoid this case as if those who feed them are caught off guard by the situation or as if the authorities want to settle the dust that the case has raised.
The incumbent Interior Minister, Nebojša Stefanović, found himself „up the creek“. A part of the opposition – or, more precisely, head of the Belgrade Democrats and Serbian MP Balša Božović – „accused“ him of working on the orders of the mafia, that is, of punishing a decorated and a successful police officer just because Zvezdan Jovanović had requested it. Put to the test along with Minister Stefanović was the head of Serbian Interior Ministry Internal Control Sector, Miloš Oparnica, who threw his own credibility into question with one clumsy statement. However, this is not the end of it: also put to the test is the long challenged authority of the prosecutor’s office, both of the Basic Public Prosecutor’s office in Bačka Palanka and that of the Basic Public Prosecutor’s office in Novi Sad to which the case was subsequently assigned.
For the people of Bačka Palanka and Serbia this case and the stalling of the process of its final resolution – which can take a form of a suspension of proceedings against Karanović or of the launching of proceedings for establishing his criminal responsibility – means prolonged legal uncertainty. For, if the state is so carefully acting on the letters of persons convicted of the gravest crimes, it seems that the system which is to protect these people from crime does not function and that the worst „come off the winners“.
The detention of Nemanja Jovanović on the night between 10 and 11 November 2016 outside a cafe in Bačka Palanka and his transfer to the police station would not have particularly interested anyone had not his mother Olivera sent on November 30, 2016 an email to the Serbian Interior Ministry Internal Control Sector „complaining“ about Dalibor Karanović’s actions and attitude towards her son. She asked if a police inspector has the right to cock a gun and point it at a young man standing outside on the street with his friends, not bothering anyone. According to this first version, Karanović walked up to Jovanović with a loaded gun, Jovanović asked him why he was acting that way, and then they took him into the police station. The harassment allegedly continued at the police station since Karanović was resentful and annoyed because Jovanović had allegedly reported him to his bosses at the Novi Sad Police Department. As three weeks passed since the incident, Olivera Jovanović said that she had reported the case to the police station in Bačka Palanka but that nothing had happened.
The Internal Control Sector reacted to her letter as the rules require it to do and as it should always do when it gets a complaint from the citizens, and replied to it on December 2, 2016, seeking further explanation and clarification in order to more precisely determine what the problem was about.
Olivera wrote to them again explaining, in detail, Karanović’s actions towards her son. The letter hints that she had problems with her son which she attributed to his puberty, but managed to deal with. She even wrote that she had asked someone to follow Nemanja so she would know whether he got into trouble. According to this second letter, dated December 5, 2016, Karanović was brutal towards Jovanović who was just standing with his friends, took him to the police station threatening him with a gun and there, at the station, „strip-searched“ him and, generally harassed him. That same day she sent another email saying she was never given a copy of the report (presumably the arrest report) and asked why she couldn’t have the information as to who had informed Karanović that her son was selling drugs. She also answered this implying that it was other dealers who informed Karanović, with whom he supposedly cooperates and who are actually behind the whole thing.
The Internal Control Sector’s response followed – on December 15, 2016, the Sector sent a memo to the Novi Sad Police Department requesting that „allegations in the submission“ submitted by Olivera Jovanović regarding the circumstances that happened that evening be checked. Novi Sad police chief was asked to establish whether anything happened and if yes, what, what exactly was Karanović’s role, whether or not he acted in line with the law, whether he informed his superiors about his activities that night and how they reacted.
Novi Sad was to submit its report on the case by December 28, 2016, but the report was done and sent only on January 31, 2017.
After checks were conducted, the Internal Control Sector received the report of the Novi Sad Police Department in which it was established that there were no grounds for any action against Karanović, that is, that there was no exceeding of authority or use of force.
Karanović personally confirmed to us, in a talk, that everything was done „by the book“, and said he believed the whole mess was a result of the desire of those he had been fighting against for seven years out in the streets to smear him and prevent him from staying at his job.
Some of these documents were later, that is, on May 15, 2017, posted on the Serbian Interior Ministry portal as an appendix to the story of how Zvezdan Jovanović never ordered the state to defend his son, but that institutions worked on the case based on a citizen’s report to the police, which should be a rule.
The thing that wasn’t published and that is unavailable for now, in spite of a request for access to information of public importance sent to the Serbian Interior Ministry, is the report that Novi Sad had sent to Belgrade, as well as some other documents that are now in the hands of the Novi Sad Basic Public Prosecutor’s Office. However, prior to this, there were a few other things that happened which, if carefully analyzed, could produce possible explanations of the whole case.
Firstly, the report that arrived in Belgrade at the end of January, so, with a one-month delay, was found to be incomplete by the Internal Control Sector inspectors; this is why they decided to ask colleagues in Novi Sad and Bačka Palanka for additional checks. In the days when they were deciding on whether or not they needed new checks Zvezdan Jovanović’s „letter“ arrived, which was forwarded to the Internal Control Sector from Minister Stefanović’s office. The Sector employees decided to conduct a direct, on-site check on February 20, 2017.
“They came here with a few cars and checked everything, everything they were interested in, for a couple of days,“ Karanović describes the actions of Internal Control inspectors.
Zvezdan Jovanović’s letter, which we inspected, was dated February 13, 2017, while the checks began seven days later. The date of the letter is hand-written, below the body of the letter signed by Zvezdan Jovanović, while the body of the letter is typed and addressed to Minister Stefanović. The letter arrived in the Interior Ministry two weeks after the Novi Sad report which had established that there were no irregularities in the actions of Karanović and his superiors. The letter is short, it has only two paragraphs: in the first Jovnović kindly asks the minister, because he is unable to do so himself, to protect his family from the „rabid dogs“ at the Bačka Palanka Station and, in the second, he warns him that, if he fails to do so, if he fails to curb „the rabid dogs“ organizing “the murderous beating of his son“, he would hold Stefanović directly responsible if „any kind of unpleasantness or accident“ were to happen to his family members. All in all – it feels as if Jovanović had information about the content of the report so he took out a sheet of paper and asked directly the Minister for help.
Stefanović then forwarded the letter that had arrived from the Penal Correctional Institution Zabela – by the way, the letter does not have a reference number on it and it is unclear as to whether it was entered in the Interior Ministry archives – and the mechanisms of the Internal Control Sector were set in motion.
A new investigation, launched on January 20, resulted in the launching of a preliminary investigation procedure before the Basic Public Prosecutor’s Office in Bačka Palanka, in spite of the fact that, according to the „Report on the investigation of the allegations contained in the submission of convict Zvezdan Jovanović“ (which is the full title of the Internal Control Sector document dated February 24, 2017), the „assigned“ prosecutor, Miloš Knežević, declared that the case did not contain elements of any crime that is prosecuted ex officio. However, according to the report, there was a number of witnesses who incriminated Karanović, claiming that he cocked his gun pointing it at Jovanović and, together with members of the riot police unit, took him to the station with his hands tied.
Some of these witnesses who at first incriminated Karanović, in statements given to the prosecutor’s office later on rebutted some of their original statements explaining that Internal Control employees had given them prewritten statements that they were forced to sign.
Before writing their final report, inspectors listened to (spoke with) four police officers and seven citizens who were involved in the case. Among others, they also spoke to Olivera Jovanović. Although she initiated the whole thing in November 2016, she then said that, as far as she was concerned, the case was already closed because somewhat earlier, at the end of December, police officers from the Palanka Police Station explained to her the meaning of police action and police officers’ powers. This is important because Karanović now claims that he does not understand why they are still incriminating him when the person who initiated everything in the first place has decided against any form of prosecution.
Internal Control also talked to Karanović, but only on February 28, that is, four days after the report was handed in. Before that, Karanović was invited to Novi Sad to come before his superiors from the police department:
“I expected them to commend me because I was decorated eight times in 2016 for everything I did in combating drugs, but my boss only told me that I would not be doing that anymore and that I was banned from taking any action in connection with Jovanović “, said Karanović.
All this so far went as in should go, as we would say, within „the institutions of the system“: someone reported police brutality which the citizens can be particularly sensitive to regardless of whether or not they were ever convicted, the police launched the control procedure, it was obvious that something was not done right in this process but those were administrative things that point more to the existence of factions, not only at the Bačka Palanka police station but also in the Novi Sad Police Department.
The Internal Control Sector „led“ by Miloš Oparnica is probably doing the worst kind of work in the Interior Ministry, and that is the control of the work of colleagues who are sometimes exposed to enormous stress and risks for a low pay while, on the other hand, they are treading on slippery grounds where they can easily „cross the line“ and become criminals.
Up to the moment when Karanović was finally suspended, at the beginning of April, and when he was asked to come to the prosecutor’ office „to declare himself on the circumstances“, the case „unfolded“ within the Interior Ministry and it is difficult to establish whether someone wanted to cover something up or if everything was organized so one man who was getting in someone’s way would be removed from Palanka. When proceedings against Karanović were launched at the prosecutor’s office, the whole thing exploded as if someone had decided it should all go public.
Those who don’t like Karanović claim that he is not clean, that he is linked with some other groups in Palanka that also deal drugs, that as a man who had the keys to the property room where confiscated drugs were kept as evidence abused this and resold the drugs to his secret pals thus getting on the wrong side of the group that Jovanović junior is a member of.
All these are just rumors and the Internal Control, which this winter investigated all Karanović’s activities and actions failed to find anything that could additionally compromise him. There were no accusations of this kind against him in the past, he is an educated police officer, he graduated from the academy and from law school and, in addition to this, he is a master of martial arts and, in addition to being a police officer, he also runs a martial arts club as an instructor.
However, when the story was released an avalanche was launched that is now difficult to stop. Suspended Karanović is waiting on the decision of the Novi Sad Basic Public Prosecutor’s Office which got the case because Palanka prosecutor Miloš Knežević voluntarily „recused“ himself from the case. He did not wish to speak to a Vreme journalist, explaining that he does not talk to people he doesn’t know and that he had said everything a few days earlier in a statement. The prosecutor who initially said that „there was no crime“ did not pass a decision on suspending the proceedings, which could mean that some kind of pressure was exerted on him so he wouldn’t decide against prosecuting the case.
His explanation came after a big fuss in public and after the Ministry started justifying itself and explaining that things were not the way they are portrayed, that there are no links with Zvezdan Jovanović and so on. The case gained political connotations in which, like many times before, Minister Stefanović was unable to convincingly explain his actions but said that „politicians do not conduct investigations“, alluding to the documentation released by Balša Božović in the Parliament.
A „debate“ in which the choice of words was not exactly a priority reached its pinnacle on Friday, May 10, 2017, when the Ministry released the information that the investigation against Karanović started way back in December 2016 and that, therefore, it has nothing to do with Zvezdan Jovanović’s letter. The same statement was made by State Secretary Biljana Popović and Miloš Oparnica, who had, to that point, refrained from public appearances.
As if the two of them were forced to defend the Interior Ministry from Balša Božović and then they slipped on this ground because they told an untruth, which was proved the same day by the document we cited here, a document of the Internal Control Sector, produced as a result of the checking of claims made by Zvezdan Jovanović in his submission. If, in line with the political set-up, Popović Ivković had to make a public appearance in the days when the minister was avoiding it, trying to act as if she is above the whole situation, it seems as if the „news“ published that morning, on May 10, 2017 in the tabloid Alo „helped“ Oparnica – Alo claimed that the earlier published information on the planned assassination on the life of Veselin Milić (head of the Belgrade Crime Investigations Police Directorate) wasn’t true and that Miloš Oparnica was the real target.
Having in mind the kind of problems the police in Vojvodina have, the number of showdowns in the past year mainly between drug trafficking groups, when we know that Vetrenik, as a suburb of Novi Sad, and Futog, which is half way to Palanka, are known for their „drug clans“, and when we add to this the big seizure of skunkweed in the village of Obrovac near Bačka Palanka in April 2017 that the police in Palanka allegedly know nothing about, a framework is created in which a conflict such as this one, whether real or fabricated, goes beyond local boundaries and cuts to the very heart of the system.
In all this Stefanović appears as a weak minister incapable of controlling the situation and it’s a question of whether he is at all capable of controlling the work of the many police departments. On the other hand, it seems as if the Internal Control Sector, which is to get much greater powers under the new law on police, is unable to outgrow the position of a mere weapon in the minister’s hands which he uses to deal with disobedient employees. And, finally, there is police officer Karanović, who is waiting to be reinstated to the exact same position, and denies that he would consent to any move from Palanka.
“I have no ambitions to leave here, I think I have done really well in this job so far. I am interested in that and in sports, and nothing else,“ says Karanović.